Top Scholars of the Islamic Golden Age and their Major Achievements
The Islamic world of the Middle Ages is famed for making significant contributions to the development of numerous disciplines, ranging from science and mathematics to arts and philosophy. Taking place during the reign of the Abbasid Caliphate, which spanned from late 8th century AD to mid-13th century AD, the Islamic Golden Age produced some of history’s most influential minds. It’s been stated that many of the advances medieval Europe made in fields like architecture, medicine, and art can be traced back to the outstanding works of these brilliant personalities.
One amazing quality of these great thinkers was their level of tolerance to new ideas and their ability to synthesize knowledge from all walks of life. This point is evidenced in the famous House of Wisdom (i.e. the Grand Library of Baghdad), which was established during the Islamic Golden Age in order to allow Muslim and non-Muslim polymaths and scholars share ideas and expand Islam and Arabic culture.
In no particular order, the article below sheds light on the most influential thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age.
Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna)
Ibn Sina was born in the village of Afshana, on the outskirts of Bukhara in what is now Uzbekistan, to an extremely wealthy family in c. 980. Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abdullah ibn Sina, or Avicenna as he is commonly known in the West, was a Muslim scholar and physician from the 11th century. He is sometimes referred to as “the Father of Early Modern Medicine” due to his groundbreaking works in the field of medicine.
The polymath’s contributions to medicine are so significant that he is often cited as a key figure in the development of contemporary health care. The “Kitab Al-Qanun Fil-Tibb” (“The Canon of Medicine”), is one of his most well-known books that was seen as the go-to medical textbook in Europe for many centuries. The Qanun is certainly one of the most influential medical publications ever written.
Ibn Sina not only described the inner dealings of organs such as the eye and the heart, but also provided a list of more than 500 potential remedies for common illnesses. His knowledge as a botanist was on full display as he described the effects of plants and their roots on the human body.
The Polymath also worked on another important book called “The book of Healing” (“Kitāb al-Shifā”) in 1014 and finally published his work in 1027. Unlike the “Canon of Medicine”, this book was intended to be a bridge to the soul and span across topics such as logic, natural sciences, mathematics and metaphysics.
Did you know?
- Ibn Sina subscribed to the teachings of his mentor ancient Roman physician and researcher Aelius Galenus (aka Galen), especially on medical views such as pulse taking and pharmacology. However, he did not side with Galen when it came to functions surrounding the cardiovascular system.
- The polymath influenced renowned personalities such as French philosopher René Descartes and German philosopher and scientist Albertus Magnus.
- At age 10, Ibn Sina was officially certified as a Quran Hafiz (one who has memorized the entire Quran). It is said that his knowledge rivaled that of his teachers by the time he was fourteen, as he could not learn anything else from them at that time.
- Due to Avicenna’s successful endeavor to integrate Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism together with Kalam, Avicennism had established itself as the leading school of Islamic thought in the medieval Islamic world by the 12th century.
- In the 10th century, Ibn Sina created a hollow syringe that was used to remove cataracts by suction.
- In spite of Ibn Sina’s best efforts to recover from Colic, it was rumored that one of his slaves slowly poisoned him, rendering his treatment useless. Due to this, he died at an untimely age.
- Death came for Ibn Sina in June 1037, at the age of 58, after a long struggle with colic. He was laid to rest in what is now a mausoleum at his tomb in Hamadan, Iran.
Next on the list is another brilliant Islamic Golden Era scholar known as Ibn Khaldun. The name of the social scientist is thought to have been adopted from a distant ancestor of ‘Abdur-Rahman ibn Muhammad.
Born in Tunisia in 1332, Ibn Khaldun was raised by parents who were rich Yemenite Arabs. His family had made a home in Spain but then relocated to Tunisia after the fall of Seville in 1248.
In his teens, the Arab scholar served in the court of the Egyptian ruler al-Malik udh-Dhahir Barquq. He also received his early education in Egypt. He eventually left this service and relocated to Fez in Morocco in search of greater educational opportunities and more exposure to cutting-edge information.
Following this, his career was disrupted for a very long time by a political rivalry in the region. During this time of upheaval, he took shelter in the little Algerian village of Qalat Ibn Salama for three years, where he wrote “Al-Muqaddimah” (‘The Introduction’) – the first volume of his work on global history that would earn him an indelible place in the annals of history, sociology, and philosophy.
He also thought about an idea he termed as Asabiyyah . Under the term, he noted the cyclical nature of the development and fall of human civilization and the causes behind it.
Whereas most writers before Khaldun interpreted history primarily through a political lens, his contribution was to highlight the ecological, social, psychological, and economic forces that governed the visible occurrences. This sparked a revolution in historical research (i.e. sociology).
Some Interesting Facts about Ibn Khaldun
- Ibn Khaldun, a Muslim Arab philosopher, developed the foundations of modern economics 400 years before it was adopted by Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith.
- Khaldun contributed to the field of international economics by introducing the pioneering theory of growth.
- He had his education at the Ez-Zitouna University and also studied under renowned Islamic scholars.
- He was influenced by other renowned thinkers such as Ibn Sina, Muhammad and Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali.
- The Arab scholar is said to have a significant influence on the lives of Ibn al-Khatib, Ibn al-Sakkak and Mustafa Naima.
- Khaldun died in 1406 from natural causes as he was about to contest for the 6thtime for the office of the Maliki qadi (Judge). He was survived by a son.
Just like Ibn Sina, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī was a Persian polymath who was best known for his works in mathematics and geography. Al-Khwarizm, whose works greatly influenced the prominent Egyptian mathematician Abu Kamil, served as one of the scholars in the House of Wisdom during the Islamic Golden age.
Al-Khwarizmi is credited as the inventor of algebra since he presented the first systematic method for addressing algebraic problems by providing analytical solutions to linear and quadratic equations. Among other things, Al-Khwarizmi distinguished algebra from other mathematical concepts like geometry. Al- Khwrizm’s method for solving linear or quadratic equations involved reducing the equation to one of six standard forms.
Al-Khwarizmi was also one of the earliest scholars to appreciate the Hindu numeral system for its mathematical potential. His significant effort in defining these symbols was a driving force behind the 10-digit system’s rapid growth throughout the Arab world. Due to its widespread adoption and use by Arabs, this 10-digit system is often referred to as the Arabic number system. One of the earliest mathematicians to use zero as a positional base was Al-Khwarizmi.
By introducing the sine function, Al-Khwarizmi helped mathematicians refine their tabulation techniques. As a result, Al-Khwarizmi is generally considered to be the first person to conceptualize an algorithm. A major focus of his work was the use of logical reasoning in solving mathematical problems.
In the same spirit as his contributions to mathematics, Al-Khwarizmi produced significant advancements in astronomy. He established astronomical standards by creating accurate tables that are still relevant in today’s world.
Interesting Facts about ibn Musa al-Khwarizm
- A big lunar crater was named after Al Khwarizmi in honor of his many achievements in the fields of mathematics and astronomy.
- Many people credit him as the inventor of algebra. His book “Hisab Al-Jabr Al-Muqabala” is widely regarded as one of the most important works in the history of mathematics.
- He oversaw the House of Wisdom, a prestigious library in Baghdad, during his time there.
- The Persian mathematician died sometime after 847 of natural causes
al-Zahrawi (also known as Abulcasis)
Abulcasis, or Abu Al-Qasim Khalaf Ibn Al-Abbas Al-Zahrawi, was a famous Muslim surgeon who lived from 936 until 1013 A.D. His expertise in both conventional medical practice and the use of both basic and complicated medicines earned him the title of “Pharmacist Surgeon.”
“Kitab Al-Tasrif”, a thirty-volume encyclopedia of medical practice, is his most important contribution to history. Known in English as “The Method of Medicine”, the most important part of this encyclopedia is made up of three books on surgery: one on cauterization, one on incision, perforation, venesection, and wounds, and one on bone-setting. The book, which covers over 190 descriptions of different surgical instruments, remained a staple in many European universities until the 19th century.
From a medical standpoint, Abulcasis, whose area of specialization was cauterization, pioneered the discovery of what causes paralysis and the identification of the genetic basis for hemophilia. He also discovered and analyzed an abdominal pregnancy, a form of ectopic pregnancy that was lethal in his day. The surgeon also invented tools used in cataract and Caesarean section operations.
Other contributions made by al-Zahrawi
- For a surgeon, his apt description of nearly 200 different surgical instruments was unprecedented. He described in great detail how to use various probes, surgical blades, scalpels, and hooks. The surgical scissors, gripping forceps, and obstetrical forceps were also innovations of his.
- Using animal bones, Abulcasis developed a number of dental tools and prosthetic teeth.
- It is generally agreed that al-Zahrawi pioneered modern operational surgery. Thyroid removal had previously not been performed until his time.
- The surgeon is said to have had tremendous influence on many great minds, including Abu Muhammad bin Hazm, Guy de Chauliac and Jacques Daléchamps.
Abu Bakr al-Razi
Abū Bakr al-Rāzī, who was known as Rhazes to the Westerners, was a Persian physician who doubled as a philosopher and alchemist. Aside from being regarded as one of the most notable figures in medicine, the scholar was seen by some medicine historians as the most original physician of the Islamic Golden Age.
The 10th-century Persian polymath is best known for differentiating smallpox from measles. Al-Razi wrote more than 200 books during his lifetime. His most important medical work was known as “Al-Hawi fi al-Tibb”, a book that had major impact on the study of gynaecology and ophthalmic surgery
This physician was also one of the early pioneers of obstetrics and ophthalmology, which were all a study of issues surrounding the eye. As a result, he became the first physician to notice that pupils often dilate when it reacts with a strong light source.
Rhazes also delved into alchemy and was the first to present a systematic classification of chemical substances, reaction and various apparatus.
Ibn Rushd (Averroes)
Ibn Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, or Averroes as he is known in the Latin West, was born and raised during a unique time in Western intellectual history, when the Muslim world’s interest in philosophy and religion was declining.
The Andalusian polymath and jurist was known to have authored more than 100 books and treatises. Averroes was born into a wealthy family in 1126. His education ranged from theology to medicine. He studied with great philosophers such as Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Zuhr.
It was during his time as chief physician that he had a pivotal realization that changed the course of his philosophical development. Abu Ya’Qub Yusuf, the caliph (ruler) of Cordova, was so impressed by ibn Rushd that he asked him to re-translate and provide commentary on the writings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle.
Between the years 1169 and 1195, Averroes composed many summaries and commentaries on Aristotle’s works. The commentaries went from the Muslim world to the Jewish and Christian worlds thanks to their translation from Arabic into Hebrew and then into Latin.
The interest in Greek philosophy that ibn Rushd sparked in the Middle Ages laid the groundwork for the Renaissance several centuries later.
“Fasl al-Maqal” (The Decisive Treatise), “Kashf al-Manahij” (Exposition of the Methods of Proof) and “Tahafut al-Tafut” (The Incoherence of the Incoherence) were all books he wrote between 1179-1180.
Averroes is said to have died from natural causes in 1198. He was 72 years. Averroism, his school of philosophy, influenced many scholars that followed after him, including Al-Bitruji, Maimonides, Boethius of Dacia, Samuel ibn Tibbon, Thomas Aquinas, Gaetano da Thiene, John of Jandun, and Pietro Pomponazzi.
Fatima bint Muhammad al-Fihri al-Quraysh made some major strides during the Islamic Golden Age. This Arab woman was praised for her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, allowing her to leave an indelible mark in the history books.
Fatima was able to put her father’s and husband’s fortune to good use after they passed away. In the wake of her loss, Fatima channeled her energy into a project that would help future generations. She did this in hopes of repaying the kindness shown to their family by the citizens of Fez in Morocco after they arrived from the Tunisian city of Kairouan. Later, in 859 C.E., Fatima established al-Qarawiyyin University.
For several centuries, the Al-Qarawiyyin University was the largest institution of its kind in Africa. Scholars and students from all around the world flocked to this institution to bask in its rich knowledge pool. According to tradition, Al-Qarawiyyin was the alma mater of numerous illustrious Muslim thinkers, including the judge Abu Bakr Ibn Al-‘Arabi, Abu Walid Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun, and Gerbert of Aurillac. The later went on to become Pope Sylvester II.
Did you know?
According to UNESCO and some other organizations, the educational institution that al-Fihri founded around 800 is the oldest ancient university in the world that is still operating. To put into perspective, the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, was established in 989.
‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Majusi (Haly Abbas)
Known in the West as Haly Abbas, Ali-Ibn-e-Abbas-Al-Majusi was a 10th-century Iranian physician, surgeon, and psychologist. A scholar of high repute, Haly Abbas is credited with laying some of the important building blocks of Islamic medicine. His works were seen in similar light as the one produced by the likes of al-Tabari, Razi (Abu Bakr al-Razi), and Avicenna. The latter took a great deal of inspiration from Haly Abbas, especially when it came to diagnosing and treating jaundice and other liver disease.
Haly Abbas is credited with writing “Kamilu Sina’at” or “al-Kitab al-Maliki ” (The Royal Book), a 20-treatise book which was widely circulated and used in many European universities until the 18th century. One important feature of the book is the section which provides description of the techniques used in handling cysts, tumors and aneurism, among others.
Al-Ma-jusi was a key figure in the promotion and discussion of neuroscience, psychology, internal medicine, and basic medical sciences. His primary focus was usually on theories of medicine and the practice of medicine.
Other interesting Facts about ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Majusi
- ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Majusi is generally considered one of the most eminent scholars of the Buyid dynasty, a Shia Iranian dynasty of Daylamite origin which ruled parts of southern and central Iran and Iraq from the mid 10th century to the mid 11th century. Other notable scholars of the dynasty include Ibn al-Haytham (aka Alhazen) and Abu Ali al-Farisi.
- The physician was born to a wealthy Persian Family and later became Emir ‘Adud al-Daula Fana Khusraw’s personal physician from 949 CE to 983 CE. Prior to that he had received extensive trained under Shaikh Abu Maher Musa ibn Sayyār.
- There are some medicine historians that claim that Abbas’s book,“Kitāb Kāmil aṣ-Ṣināʿa aṭ-Ṭibbiyya” (The Complete Art of Medicine), which he completed around 980, contain a more practical perspective than Avicenna’s “The Canon of Medicine”.
- “The complete Book of Medicine” was divided into more than 18 parts and covered topics from medical ethics to mental disorders.
- The physician is believed to be one of the early practitioners to delve into psychophysiology and psychosomatic medicine.
- The Iranian physician and researcher died from natural causes in 994 AD
Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen)
Another prominent figure whose works made waves during and after the Islamic Golden Age was Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham. Popularly known by his Latin name Alhazen, al-Haytham was widely referred to as the “Father of Optics”. He also produced some influential works in astronomy and mathematics.
The polymath Al-Haytham was born in c. 965 to a Persian family. Influenced by prominent names such as Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, and Galen, Alhazen put religion aside and delved deep into the sciences. He later made a name for himself as a renowned mathematician.
His major contributions was in regard to visual representation and perception. He is credited with his groundbreaking works on the camera obscure, popularly known as the pinhole.
Based on his studies, he concluded that only a perpendicular hit of a projectile on a surface would be strong enough to cause it to penetrate, whereas oblique impacts would be deflected by the surface.
The Persian polymath also conducted extensive research in psychophysics and experimental psychology.
Other Interesting Facts about Ibn Al-Haytham
- Ibn Al-Haytham delved into other disciplines such as physics to investigate properties of luminance from rainbows and eclipses. This later provided the foundation for his theories on catoptrics.
- He also formulated the Lambert quadrilateral (also known as Ibn al-Haytham–Lambert quadrilateral) after introducing the concept of motion into geometry. Al-Haytham went a step further to generate a formula that could sum up the first 100 natural numbers.
- The polymath influenced great scholars like Averroes and the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler.
Another influential personality during the Islamic Golden Age was Diyāʾ al-Dīn Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh ibn Aḥmad al-Mālaqī, a famous Andalusian polymath. Popularly known as Ibn al-Bayṭār, this scholar produced remarkable works in botany, pharmacology, and medicine.
Born in 1197, the polymath grew up under the tutelage of a popular Málagan botanist called Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Nabātī. Just like al-Nabātī, he quickly learned all there was to know about the development of the scientific method and the introduction of empirical and experimental techniques.
Ibn al-Baytars main contribution during his lifetime was his precise analyses of contributions made by other Islamic physicians in the Middle Ages. This helped him to discover more than 300 different medicines that had not been documented.
The botanist died from natural causes in 1248. He was in his early 50s.
Other major contributions of Ibn al-Baytar
- The botanist’s life and works influenced other physicians such as Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa, Amir Dowlat, and Andrea Alpago
- Al-Baytar produced his first major work called “Kitāb al-Jāmiʿ li-Mufradāt al-Adwiya wa-l-Aghdhiya” which comprised more than a thousand uses of various foods and drugs.
- He also published “Kitāb al-Mughnī fī al-Adwiya al-Mufrada”, which encompassed various Islamic medicines and their treatment of various ailments.
Al-ʻIjliyyah bint al-ʻIjliyy was one of the few women scholars who made a name for herself during the Islamic Golden Age. The Baghdad-based scientist is credited with manufacturing an important astronomical instrument known as astrolabes. These were circular disks that looked like hand-held models of the universe.
She contributed a lot to the study of astronomy and was in the service of Sayf al-Dawla, first Emir of Aleppo, for more than two decades, from 944 to 967. Islamic world historians often hail her as one the most extraordinary women in the Islamic Golden age.
Other interesting facts about Al-ʻIjliyyah
- Her influence in astronomy was recognized when scientists named the main-belt asteroid 7060 Al-ʻIjliya after her. The asteriod was discovered by Henry E. Holt
- Al-ʻIjliyyah influenced one of the characters in the Africanfuturist science fiction horror novel called “Binti”, which was written by Nnedi Okorafor.
Just how long did the Islamic Golden Age last?
Scholars of the era, which spanned from the 8th century to the 14th century, desired nothing than to assimilate scientific knowledge from civilizations of the past and regions that had been conquered by the Islamic Empire.
However, some say that the end of the era coincided with the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate, which was caused by the Mongol invasions and the Siege of Baghdad in 1258. In that siege, it is said that the Great Library of Bagdad was razed to the ground. Other historians maintain that the age came to an end around the 1350, a period which coincided with the rise of the Timurid Empire in Central Asia.
Islamic Golden Age Facts
Between the years 790 and 1258, Muslims enjoyed a flourishing civilization known as the Islamic Golden Age. The era saw them chalked up many cultural, scientific, and military achievements. According to historians, the tolerant nature of the culture allowed for science and mathematics to flourish, as emphasis was placed on the acquisition of knowledge and interpretation of the knowledge.
Here a few more interesting facts about the Islamic Golden Age:
- The Islamic Golden Age witnessed the development of many scientific disciplines because the rulers of the Islamic Empire in this period invested a lot in the scholars of the day, including funding the translation of works into Arabic and Aramaic.
- It is even said that some of the scholars of the Islamic Golden Age received salaries/stipends the value that today’s mega celebrities and athletes receive. It is therefore safe to say those scholars were sort of the celebrities of their era.
- Caliph al-Mansur, the second Abbasid caliph, is credited with achieving many things, including the founding of the House of Wisdom, a grand library, in Baghdad, Iraq. Inspired by the Academy of Gondishapur in Iran, the House of Wisdom was founded around 825.
- Had it not been for the tireless works of these scholars, many works from Classical Greece, Persia, Syria, and India would most likely have been lost. The scholars translated from Greek, Persian, and even Sanskrit into Arabic and Aramaic. Those works were then translated to Hebrew and later Latin.
- The scholars of this era benefited a lot from the Assyrian Christians and physicians, most famous among them Hunayn ibn Ishaq.
- Physicians of the Islamic Golden Age were inspired by the works of Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Galen, and Claudius Ptolemy from Alexandria.
- A scholar known as Al-Biruni (973-1048) is said to have produced the best estimate of the radius of the earth at the time. The scientist proposed that the radius was 6339.6 km. To put into perspective, modern scientist put the figure at around 6371 km. therefore, Al-Biruni came pretty close.
- There were many cultural and intellectual hubs of the Golden Age; however, the city of Baghdad in Iraq was perhaps the world’s largest city by then. People from different parts of the known world trooped into Baghdad to bask in the cosmopolitan nature of the city.